Professor Maxwell was so famous that we had heard of him when we were still at school. He was joint editor with A.A. Phillips of a very good anthology of poetry for use in schools: In Fealty to Apollo. When I first saw him at a first-year English lecture at the University of Melbourne he was exactly as I had pictured him: noble forehead, craggy face, deep voiced, with strong arms and a powerful upper body in a droopy tweed sports jacket. He had the head, arms and torso of a very powerful man joined to quite short legs; he was also slightly pigeon-toed, which gave his feet a tentative look, rather belying the majesty of his head and the authority of his voice. He brought books in to the lecture theatre, but never looked at them, lecturing in an intimate, spontaneous way, as if he and his listeners were good friends, joined in admiration of the works and the writers he spoke about. In his lecture on the Scottish Border Poets he would weep while reciting some of the ballads, which naturally became the stuff of awed legend.
Professor Maxwell loved all the masculine arts, boxing perhaps above all. The plaque that his friends and family have put on the site of the huts he built by the Howqua River in central Victoria carries one of his favourite quotations, from George Borrow’s Lavengro (1851): ‘We’ll now put on the gloves; and I’ll try to make you feel what a sweet thing it is to be alive, brother!’ With his long arms and strong shoulders, Professor Maxwell was probably a good boxer himself. He was also said to be a tremendous axeman, who could split shingles with one blow.
At Melbourne University Professor Maxwell had one of the largest rooms in the Old Arts building: on the first floor, with several big diamond-paned windows looking onto the Law-Arts courtyard. His Icelandic classes were held in this room, where we read and translated Old Norse sagas. One thing that gave him particular pleasure in his later years was being made a Knight of an Icelandic Order for his services to Icelandic literature and culture. He showed us his chivalric medallion, and said with pride that there were very few knights of this order in Iceland, let alone in another country.
To illustrate the journeys in the sagas he had a map of Iceland, outlined in blue, hand-painted on the wall above the bookcase in his office. I spent many hours in this room, sipping sherry, smoking a preposterous number of cigarettes, and gazing out of the window at the twilight deepening in the old fig-tree that dominated the courtyard. Professor Maxwell valued strong drink—indeed he was the first tutor to provide us with sherry, in little glasses that were often topped up. I remember with my sherry glass carrying a little brass ashtray, tapping my ash into that, and trying to keep to only two cigarettes per hour, to reduce the smog.
I was normally late for classes, arriving breathless and apologetic, but I don’t remember ever being reproved for this by Professor Maxwell. Shortly after I left the university, I asked him for a job reference. When I saw him next, he said, smiling: ‘Well, Anne, I have written that reference you asked for, and now you will have to be diligent and punctual, or my name will be mud.’ In anyone else, this would have been a reference to my lateness, but with him that was impossible. He was a gentleman in all things, above all, in his treatment of students. In return, we focused hard on the texts and grew to love what he loved.
Professor Maxwell sometimes stayed overnight at the university working, reading, drinking and thinking. The night watchman (no security men in those days) was accustomed to this. One night, so the legend got around, Professor Maxwell was alone in his room when he heard a sound outside in the broad corridor. Grasping his axe, he went outside and hewed at the man, cleaving him from top to bottom. Satisfied, he went back into his room. Next morning, the cleaners found a blackboard on wheels in the corridor, split right down the centre.
Professor Maxwell loved walking and horse-riding. He hated cars. I heard that for years he rode his horse in to the university from his home in Rosanna. Then, when this was no longer possible, he used to walk in, and only in later years consented to travel by train. I was luxuriating in ownership of my first car by then, and sometimes passed him on the streets of Carlton. I would pull up, open the car door and offer him a lift. The car was decrepit and sometimes had to be jiggled under the bonnet, but he would accept gravely, and we would have conversation while I struggled with driving and talking at once.
After I had left the university and was working in libraries, I heard that Professor Maxwell’s Friday night Icelandic reading classes were still being held, and that he would be very pleased if I were to return. I went back, nervous about whether I would remember any of it, but it all came back of course. There we were, his colleagues Bob Priestley and John Martin, with three or four others, sipping sherry, smoking and struggling in the twilight with the hard bits. But Professor Maxwell had changed. He had had low blood pressure for years, and his legs had become very weak. He could walk, but only with calipers around both legs—iron rings joined to a vertical bar. I saw him quite often swinging his iron-bound legs slowly, painfully, one after the other, up Grattan Street, heading towards his room in the New Arts building. I caught up with him to talk and walk alongside a couple of times, but sometimes I avoided him, feeling guilty and ashamed. It seemed a dreadful downfall for so dignified a man: this barely managing to scrape one leg along in front of another. But he spoke quite openly about his incapacity.
Professor Maxwell loved the bush. He may have built the first of his famous huts by the Howqua in the 1940s, when he was a lawyer and before he turned to English language studies. When I was in my final undergraduate year in 1965, nothing would have given me more delight than to have been asked to go up there with him (I called him Ian by now), Bob Priestley and others. One dear friend of mine, Andrew Deacon, an outstanding lecturer in the English Department at that time, had been there with him several times and said: ‘Ask him yourself. He’d love you to come.’ But to me that seemed outside the furthest reaches of civilised behaviour: I felt I could not ask to be invited to something so personal. So Andrew said he would take me, together with my friend, Paul.
We went in two separate cars, and after Andrew managed to roll his on a straight road with no obstacles, we all piled into ours, Andrew nursing his dog Rani in the back. We left the car by the Howqua, hoisted our rucksacks on, walked downstream five hundred metres and waded through the river in our boots several times. Professor Maxwell’s place was a cluster of little bush huts around a clearing, with a gigantic eucalyptus trunk in the middle. The huts were made of untrimmed tree trunks—‘bush poles’—nailed or lashed together, with beaten earth floors. Flattened kerosene tins nailed to bush-pole rafters with some sheets of corrugated iron served as roofing. The sleeping huts had two beds in each of them: fencing wire strung from a frame of rough bush poles. The intending sleeper, Andrew told us, had to collect masses of bracken and put it on the beds for a mattress. ‘Quite comfortable,’ he assured us.
The oldest hut was the kitchen hut, reserved for use by Professor Maxwell only, if he was there. The front of the hut was open, and the floor was built up at the front with river stones that formed the hearth of the cooking fire. The roof sloped sharply down at the back to his bush-pole bed, which was wedged in the angle between roof and floor. In later years, a rather splendid chair of bush poles and canvas was built in the north corner beside the fire. A few cooking pots hung from nails on the walls. Though I was never at the Howqua with him, I imagine him at night beside the fire, saying—or singing—his favourite border ballad, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’.
Over the years he built more sleeping huts for other friends who stayed with him on the Howqua. The last one, the most northerly, he built for Professor Gabriel Turville-Petre, Professor of Old Icelandic studies at Oxford University. Professor Turville-Petre was invited to Melbourne University to read Old Norse with the fourth-year honours class for two terms in 1965. These two men were both knights of old-world courtesy, and both lived their passion for Old Icelandic. But in every other way they were as different as could be. Professor Turville-Petre was little, stooped, bald, with jug ears and a slow, beautiful smile. You had the feeling that asking him a question yanked him back from some other world—he would answer very precisely and literally, with respect for the person who asked the question even when it was foolish. He had worked at Oxford with J.R.R. Tolkien, and, having recently read The Lord of the Rings with great enthusiasm, I asked Professor Turville-Petre what he thought of it. It was all right, he said gently, but perhaps a misuse of his talents: ‘In the time it took him to write Lord of the Rings, he could have brought out a truly definitive edition of Beowulf.’ Turville-Petre’s own special field was the Edda poetry of the Scandinavians of the ninth and tenth centuries. We translated it with him, line by line, conscious that we were working with the world expert in Edda poetry, and trying to rise to the occasion to make Professor Maxwell proud.
The last time I stayed at Professor Maxwell’s was thirteen or fourteen years ago, when I went up for a weekend with my son Tom and a friend of his—both aged about fourteen—and a friend of mine, Sally. When we first arrived at the huts, they were already occupied. A great canvas marquee had been erected in the clearing in front of the kitchen hut, but there was no-one in sight. What a nerve! We had been going to stay there, and we knew Professor Maxwell. There was nothing I could do, however, so we continued on downriver, over the crag that juts out above the swimming hole, and pitched our tents and made our camp fire a few hundred metres downstream.
I woke early next morning; the others were still asleep when I rolled out, put my clothes on and went back to the professor’s encampment to see about these other people. A woman was sitting in the canvas chair in the kitchen hut, beside a smoking camp fire, reading. She was tall and queenly, with a strong profile and impressive grey hair. It was very quiet. I went up and said, ‘Lovely morning’, and conversation began. She offered me a cup of tea, my first for the morning. When I had drunk it gratefully, I asked casually (but preparing to pounce): ‘Do you know anything about the history of this place?’
‘Yes. My father built it.’
All my ideas flew round in circles. I said, ‘You must be Camilla.’
‘No, I’m Delia, the other one,’ she replied laughing.
I had been at the same school as Camilla. She was a couple of years older, and notorious as an eccentric who, against school rules, always wore a gabardine coat, whether inside, outside, hot, cold, raining or not. Her brother Danny came to our school once with his guitar, and for some reason played and sang lots of folk songs for us in a warm, gentle melodic voice. But I knew nothing of Delia. I told her how I loved Professor Maxwell—how we all did. I told her about the Norse reading classes, and how wonderful his lectures had been in the Epic and Romance course for Honours English II students—a course that had all his hallmarks, starting with W.S. Ker’s study Allegory and Romance and our testing its theories against Beowulf, the Norse sagas, Song of Roland, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman and so on. Professor Maxwell’s idea was to introduce students to the best that’s been thought and said, from Homer onwards as far as term time would allow: to Milton’s Paradise Lost, at least. It was almost certainly his idea to introduce the honours students to ‘Prose Dating’. This was a close study of the vocabulary, sentence structure, speech rhythms and so on of English in different periods, so that by the end of the course we could date any passage of prose correctly to within ten years. The important part of the exam was not the date we put forward but the reasons we gave to account for our decision.
Delia and I talked on beside the early-morning fire. She was obviously very pleased to meet someone who knew her father well and admired him. Suddenly she jumped up: ‘Let’s have a swim.’ She went to the pool, unwound her dress or sari or whatever it was, and stepped in. I did the same, without quite the same insouciance, and we were soon sliding around the pool with long, slow strokes. This swim was a magical experience. We were talking about the prudery of the time when we were young. Delia began to sing. Pretty soon we were floating naked in the dark, still pool under the crag, singing song after song of the fifties as we tried to recall the more erotic ones. The most outstanding was Elvis Presley’s with the deep reverberating line: ‘I hunger for your touch.’
I responded to Delia’s warmth and magnetism very strongly, although at another level I worked hard at resisting her overwhelming personality. I didn’t get to say much, when I was with her! She could see that I loved her father—that was enough for her. She was like him, too. Like him in being striking, energetic in her talk and commanding loyalty and affection—but not, I think, loving back. Is this the description of the perfect teacher: someone you strive to please, who is always slightly aloof? Someone of whom it is natural to say, ‘I admired and loved him, but I don’t think he knew me very well’?
I see now that Delia and I, as we swam in that deep, dark river, were reaching for something that her father scarcely acknowledged: female eroticism. Active sexuality is almost invisible in much medieval literature, including the sagas. There are strong women in Icelandic literature, but they are not strongly feminine. It is a world of masculine virtues, where nobility lies in leading men, fighting without heed for their safety, hewing off a leg here or a head there within accepted codes of kinship, and knowing the ancient literature that embodies these virtues. I loved that world in Iceland through Professor Maxwell. It is there, too, in the all-male world of the bushman, the cattleman, the axeman. I was drawn to it in the Australian bush through Professor Maxwell and others, but what place ultimately was there in it for me or Delia? Now Professor Maxwell and Delia are both dead, and will never answer such questions.
No doubt Professor Maxwell knew how many students he brought to a love of Icelandic literature and culture. But I doubt if he knew what a powerful influence he was on me and many others, in interconnecting English, Scottish and Icelandic literature with the strength and beauty of the Australian bush.
Image credit: Donaldytong